The Donkey

 Ο γάιδαρος [1]      

“Your mother and I had just been married,” my father started his narrative, a story I had heard from him several times, but he seemed in the mood to tell it again, so I let him. It was during the afternoon hours, when the sun was too hot outside and we couldn’t think of going anywhere, during one of my visits to Greece, back in the 1970s.

“It was only a few weeks or months,” he went on, “I don’t remember exactly. It was time for a visit to my folks at Kondrata, where they still lived, a village not too far from her father’s–a kilometer or two–but she had never been there. We had gone straight to town after the wedding, for now some of our family had moved there. I was the oldest, and the first male in the family to get married. Custom had it that a groom had to take his wife to his old folks so that she could be seen and admired not only by her new relatives but the rest of the villagers there who would be curious to see my new bride. Besides, I wanted to, for I was proud of my new wife who had come from a prosperous family and would have a chance to show one of her bridal outfits and all her finery.”

My father sipped some coffee from the cup that Sophia, he second wife, had brought us. I munched a dry nut or two, and drank from a glass of cool water.

“So, for that special occasion,” my father continued, “she had put on her best dress–a brown silk gown I had given her as a nuptial gift, and her spaletto, a white kerchief worn for the first time when a woman becomes a bride. It was folded over her shoulders and secured with a large golden brooch that was part of her dowry, something she liked to display throughout her life. Don’t know what happened to it–somebody must have stolen it when she died, or soon after, for lots of people were in the house then, rummaging her drawers. Nothing of hers was left,” my father added with a short sigh.

“Your mother,” he went on after a short pause, as Sophia had come back with a tray with two pieces of baklava folded in tin-foil, “was a modest woman but at that time she wanted to show her jewelry that her rich dowry had brought. Well, our visit concluded, people at my home village had been impressed, and we were on our way back to town, on a road still wet from the recent rains, but this was a fine day, still fairly early in the spring, mid-morning. My cousin Costas came along, and he and I chatted, following your mother who was riding on our family donkey.

“In those days animals were rare, and only a few families could afford riding, most peasants using their donkeys to carry loads. You know donkeys,” my father added with a smile. “In our place we called them gaidaroV–a big ass, a name applied mostly to humans. A donkey is actually a humble animal known for its long (and useless) ears and its unlimited patience, for it works hard for the family that owns it, eats nothing but straw (horses are given oats to eat), carries sacks and humans on its back unresistingly, and suffers blows with a stick raining down on its back when its owner wants the poor beast to hurry its steps as it trudges along a path sunk under its load. It will bray occasionally, mainly in the month of May, the time donkeys mate, but otherwise, this animal is quiet and peaceful and accepting its miserable lot more than any other animal or human.

“But our donkey was different. We Santases didn’t own animals because of the nature of our work. We weren’t farmers, we were builders. But for some reason we owned this donkey–I think somebody gave it to my Uncle Mitsos because he owed him money, or may be because he wanted to get rid of it. It. was anything but the patient donkey it was supposed to be. It had a temper. It bit and kicked and resisted being loaded by braying so loudly the whole neighborhood came to their windows to curse it. Of course we didn’t load it with brushwood, but with picks and axes and hammers, and such heavy stuff, for it had to carry those tools up the rocky hilltops where we usually worked hewing stones for olive presses. Its load was at least three times heavier than the usual load of dry vine sticks and olive twigs. So, probably for that reason, or because it had a birth defect in its brain, it became cantankerous for it could throw you off with a jerk of its back if you tried to ride it. I wouldn’t have anything to do with it; for one thing I had lived in town for several years and we didn’t need an animal there, and when my uncle Mitsos came to town he managed to subdue it by kicking it on the side with unusual force or using a rugged stick. Still the animal was famous for its bad temper, and I knew my uncle looked to sell it, but the neighbors knew about it and wouldn’t buy.

“In any case, I had to use it when I visited with your mother. She couldn’t ride a car, for the smell of gasoline bothered her, and she had actually fainted when, after the wedding, I had hired Kongas, owner of one of the two or three taxis in town, to take us to our new home. So I had to use the surly-tempered donkey to take us to the village and back to town. To our surprise, the donkey behaved like a gentleman on the way up. No incident whatsoever, probably knowing it was carrying a new bride. And when you mother mounted it for a second time, on our way back to town, up to a point everything went well. We had covered two thirds of the way, and we had reached the Karametsos turn, a dangerous bend, blocking the view of oncoming traffic. The few trucks in town those days had to go around it very carefully, and more than one had fallen into a trench three or four meters deep underneath it. The place was also famous for its puddles, and those traveling on foot or on animals had to skirt around them, or wade into the mud. Donkeys are peculiar, for they always choose to tread along the edge of the road, as if to avoid being run over by other traffic, or some other reason I fail to comprehend. And so this donkey followed the established traffic route and trudged along the narrow strip, your mother sitting on it, a new bride, looking splendid in her finest dress and with all her jewelry still on, a sign for the passers-by to notice.

“Well, just as we took the turn, a big, muddy puddle covering the entire road appeared. It must have been at least a foot deep, and the donkey, instead of avoiding it, as it usually would, stepped right into the middle of it, stopped, knelt on its front legs, leaned forward, and unloaded your mother with a jerk of its back. As she tumbled over into the mud, she screamed in horror as she landed into the puddle. It was a big mess. Costas and I tried to pull her out, for the water there was so deep and the mud so dirty from animal urine and other debris that her bridal dress was ruined and she was crying in shock. Luckily, she had plenty of other clothes in the bags hanging from the donkey’s saddle, including several towels, and we helped her dry herself.

“As for the donkey, he stood there and looked at us with a look that said, ‘See, I fixed you!’”

“Costas and I didn’t hesitate. The two of us together pushed the stubborn animal–it resisted but we managed to get it to the side of the road, where there was a trench underneath. It started braying, its ears pulled back straight, its hind legs at an angle, sticking to the road. But we pushed it over finally, and it tumbled down the hill several meters and lay still. It’s dead, we thought, the devil take it.

“So we went back to your mother who had managed to pull herself together as best as she could, though she was still mud-covered and smelly. She couldn’t stop crying, from shame if not for her ruined bridal outfit.

“We started walking again, and now we would have to cover the remaining three kilometers to town, supporting and holding her as best as we could.

“Just as we got around the bend of Karametsos, about a hundred yards or so, we looked down the bottom of the trench, where the donkey had fallen. To our total surprise, it was standing up! In fact, it turned in our direction when it saw us looking at it, still defiant, as if to say: ‘Now, didn’t I fix you? What can you do about it?’”

“We ran down the ravine and got to the spot it had fallen and started pulling it up, for it still had its reins and its saddle on. Costas gave it a few kicks as we were doing this–and I stopped him, not wanting him to kill it. We pulled and pulled until we finally got to the road, where your mother was waiting, sitting on a little rock at the side of the road, still crying. We tried to get her to ride back on it, but she refused. So we loaded the sacks on its back again–otherwise we would have to carry them ourselves–and Costas pulled the animal behind him. It followed tamely, its ears lowered–its eyes sad and gloomy, thinking in a language we could all understand. It was a sign of surrender and defeat. It now looked as patient as any other donkey and resigned to its fate.

“Next day Costas took it back to the village, where a neighbor, noting its new behavior, offered my uncle a good price and he sold it.”




[1] The Donkey